The Advanced High School 800m Race


Overview, Training & Tactics




The high school 800m race is a true ‘hybrid’ event in that virtually any sound athlete has an opportunity to succeed, whether ‘speed’ based and coming from a sprint (400) background or ‘distance’ based, coming from a history of cross country or distance track & field.  Beyond high school, the truly successful 800m specialists almost always come from a speed background as the physiological racing needs can only be satisfied with a rate of sprint turnover normally beyond that of the distance athlete.  To this end, girls or boys interested in the event need only have a desire to run the long sprint coupled with a moderate aerobic background.  This can come from either a specific pre-season buildup aimed at 800m distances or a year-round approach to conditioning involving summer mileage and cross country. 


800m training advantages for high school athletes have long-range impacts.  First and foremost, any coach desiring ultimate success beyond high school for his or her distance athletes must realize that the majority of training intensity in a collegiate area will involve additional mileage at higher speeds . . . in effect doing all that is possible to raise the speed of the ‘comfort zone’ and also raise the level of endurance at that speed.  Mileage will be added by a collegiate coach as a factor of the athlete’s more advanced training age, the increased distance of the racing in college, and the desire to maximize the physiological adaptations possible through greater training loads.  If a high school coach emphasizes this aspect too early, there isn’t much room for collegiate increases in mileage.  Conversely, if a high school athlete has an exposure to the form and rhythm of speed, especially through intense races such as an 800m, the speed developed or revealed might ensure collegiate success.  Therefor, not only will 800m speed help an athlete draw collegiate attention, it will also help she or he continue a positive direction of racing success in all distance events.


Regardless, the high school 800m race is still a factor of 70-80% aerobic strength and 20-30% speed.  Later in a career, those 800m athletes who are going to continue with racing success will need more and more to be speed oriented.  To run below 1:53 for boys and 2:14 for girls will require a dramatic speed component just not present in every distance athlete, yet many regional, sectional, and state championships are won with times much higher than the elite levels.  The Mutolas, Coes, and Clarks of the world have tremendous 400m bests and these translate to world-record 800m times, but any high school athlete with a 400m best that is reasonably sound can develop 800m times that can win.


First, to calculate the rough 800m race best for any athlete, male or female, a simple formula is available.  The only required information from an athlete with an aerobic base is the 400m personal best.  To calculate the 800m time (per lap) simply take 10% of the 400m race best time (55 second 400m race best = 5.5 seconds) and add that to the race best time (55 seconds + 5.5 seconds = 60.5).  This is the rough speed of the first lap.  Now, do the exact same procedure with this new figure to arrive at the second lap time (60.5 seconds + 6 seconds = 66.5).  Add these two figures together and you will approximate a race best for any athlete (60.5 + 66.5 = 2:07).  This formula may be found to be slightly pessimistic for athletes with personal 400m bests beyond 54 seconds, but is still relatively accurate (we all have seen high school boys with 55 second 400m bests run 2:03-2:05 primarily on strength).  The faster the athlete races the 400m, the more precise the ratio becomes.  An athlete with a 400m best of 45 seconds (Coe) would then be expected to produce times in the 1:42 range (precisely what he accomplished).  However, although this formula will give a rough race goal, it will not necessarily reflect the per-lap racing strategy.





Now that we have an idea of what types of times are possible, we have to imagine the types of training that will affect the energy systems responsible for competing at the 800m distance.  Simply put, the 800m race is substantially beyond the ability of the ATP-CP system to provide enough energy (6-10 seconds) and is substantially beneath the time frame of the aerobic system (15 minutes plus).  We do use the ATP-CP system for an efficient start but athletes will find themselves operating in a LA (lactic acid) energy system for the length of the race (1:50-2:20 depending on gender and ability).  The training of that system and ability to handle high levels of blood lactate while maintaining form and speed are at the core of elite level high school running. 


Although any competent high school coach has found that there are ‘many ways to skin a cat’ (and therefore many ways to prepare the athlete), we will presume that training for a race 800 will start with a preparatory phase to some degree.   Following will be a competitive phase where the athlete has racing efforts to worry about along with continued advancement in the seasonal training.  So, our look at this problem will encompass two time periods . . . pre-competition and competition phases.


Pre-Competition Phase


Although success in the 800m does not absolutely require a pre-competitive period due to the relatively slower times that qualify as ‘successful’ in high school, any runner desiring to get the most out of themselves in any season should attempt a basic pre-training routine if at all possible.  Multi-sport athletes may supplement basketball or wrestling training with event-specific technique development (in many schools this will be the case), or the distance coach may prescribe additional strength and aerobic work beyond technique if the athlete has no other sport during a ‘winter’ time period.  Coaches should maintain a ‘hard-easy’ balance in training allowing for complete recovery between workouts, but may want to include the following in a 8-12 week pre-competition phase (macrocycle) of 800m training:


1.)                 Aerobic base work.  Starting at 10-15 miles per week (mpw) and ascending to 15-20 mpw during the pre-competitive phase.  This running may be done at all speeds and in varying distances from 2.5 to 4.5 miles per run.  Runs may be:

Fartleks:           Literally ‘speedplay’.  Run as you feel with varying degrees of speed from ATP bursts through long-slow-distance and constantly changing distances at which you hold that speed.

Power Runs:      Anaerobic threshold level runs of non-conversational pace for durations of 15-30 minutes.

Stepdowns:       After a relaxed warm up, a series of 600-800m paced runs, strictly measured, where each successive 600-800m run is faster than the one before.  Usually 4-6 stepdowns will occur in one run, each typically 15 seconds faster than the one before.  Sample times could be 3:30-3:15-3:00-2:45 for boys and 4:00-3:45-3:30-3:15 for girls with an 800m-1mile warm down.

Conversational:  Placed after more intensive base runs in order to speed removal of trace lactic acid and speed blood flow nutrients to taxed muscle groups.  Very slow (8:00 for boys and 8:30 for girls) and moderate in distance (3 miles).


2.)                 Aerobic Strength Work.  One exercise bout per week (microcycle) which requires a greater development of power during the running motion.  Several possibilities include:

Hill Running:                  Fartlek running over rolling terrain of varying inclines.  Focus should be on driving knees and arms on the uphills and full extension of stride length on the downhills.

Stadium Steps:  Patterns of one and two-leg hops up stadium steps with easy jogging down            or track lap circuits.  The objective should be to follow 30-45 second stair bouts with 1-2 minutes of easy running.


3.)                 Plyometrics.  Bounding and depth-jumping exercises selected by the coach to develop greater strength through the range of motion.  These highly stressful exercises should only be performed by athletes in training shape . . . not as a method of acquiring basic conditioning.  Performed twice weekly, the plyometric workout is superior for conditioning explosive power in a greater range of motion, contributing to a greater stride effective stride length and quicker turnover with shorter ground contact time.  The references on plyometrics by Dr. Donald Chu seem to be best for high school athletes.  Coaches should select 3-4 exercises from the manuals that are designated for the running motion.


4.)                 Core.  Abdominal and upper-body strength are two of the most grossly misunderstood and neglected areas of pre-competition conditioning.  The core workout develops that and may be done daily as it is isometric (using only body resistance) in nature.  A good core workout would be:

Push-ups:                     2 x 25 done in strict form.  Explosive power strokes and slow

relaxing strokes.

Sit-ups:             100-200.  Any variation of sit-ups or crunches although in minimum blocks of 50.

Towel Scrunch:  2 x 5-10 minutes (while watching TV or studying) of grabbing a bath towel with a bare foot and drawing it up under the foot by using the toes only.  Grab the towel with the toes and then reach out and re-grab more of the towel.  Use a single foot at a time and rest the other foot while doing them alternately.  This strengthens and develops the foot for staying on the toes in the 800m and pushing off effectively.


5.)                 Circuit Weightlifting.  A combination of upper and lower body lifts done in rapid succession (keeping heart rate higher) with emphasis on explosive contraction strokes and lighter weights with higher repetitions.  Possible lifts would include leg extension (done single leg at a time), leg curl, seated leg press and calf raises for the lower body along with arm curls, dumbbell flys, and bench (traditional or incline) for upper body.


Placing this into a weekly microcycle will be the ‘art’ of the individual coach, but a possible format might be:



(Pre-Competition  --  No competitive efforts  --  No alternate conditioning)


Monday AM:                  Circuit Lifting.

Easy fartlek 20-30 minutes (3M).

Monday PM:                  Core.

                                    (Optional base run.  Becomes required later in macrocycle.)